Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 2)

My last post was inspired by a recent New York Times article about Cindy Sherman’s  latest body of work. In it, she presents herself in the style of old Hollywood screen goddesses who are past their prime. Rather than looking sadly like they are trying to still look like their younger selves, the women that Sherman portrays have a certain dignity to them. They look like they are older. They look like they have lived a life.

Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Sherman states that this work, which came after a 5-year hiatus, was the result of she herself getting older and trying to come to terms with it. She says, “I, as an older woman, am struggling with the idea of being an older woman.” And apparently she is using this new series to try to figure it out.

Sherman is now 62, an age which for many is an in-between state — not quite still middle-aged, but not yet old-old. As author Gerald Marzaroti recently wrote of people that age: “You are milling in the anteroom of the aged.” The fact that Sherman is professing that this series of pictures is more autobiographically based than her prior work is really interesting to me, as is the fact that her age is a driving force in making it.

Numerous photographers have used aging as a foundation for their work- Anne Noggle  and Lucy Hilmer are two who leap immediately to mind—and I, too, find myself very consciously exploring it in my own work at the moment.

I have always been interested in the process and effects of aging. For the “Shadowing the Gene Pool” series, I photographed young children and very old adults, marveling in their similarities and differences. I did the same in the “Birth & Death” series. In my current work, I am looking at my own body, how I am aging, what I think about it, and how I see myself as I age, in addition to looking at how others age. While it is not the only issue that my new work tackles, it is a big part of it.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column back in March that speaks to how being older can enrich one’s work. Here is an excerpt:

“…(People are) less likely by middle age to be blinded by ego, more likely to know what it is they actually desire, more likely to get out of their own way, and maybe a little less likely…to care about what other people think.

…They achieve a kind of tranquility, not because they’ve decided to do nothing, but because they’ve achieved focus and purity of will. They have enough self-confidence, and impatience, to say no to some things so they can say yes to others.

From this perspective, middle age is kind of inspiring. Many of life’s possibilities are now closed, but limitation is often liberating. The remaining possibilities can be seized more bravely, and lived more deeply.”

Portraits, Self-Portraits, Cindy Sherman & Aging (Part 1)

The New York Times recently  published an article on photographer Cindy Sherman that focused on her most recent work, which is being exhibited for the first time in New York City this month. Throughout her 40-year career, Sherman has made photographs using herself as a model.

At the time that her “Film Stills” series was catapulting her to fame, she stated that these portraits were not “about” her. By this she meant that they did not contain any autobiographical content, and that the viewer should not expect to understand anything about her as a private individual by looking at the pictures. Up to now, she has always maintained that stance about all of her work.

But the New York Times article raised my eyebrows when I read the lines, “…she is now willing to see aspects of herself even in her early photos.”

This shift is significant, and I’m sure will lead to much discussion among critics, art historians, and students of her work. Sherman herself attributes this change in her own assessment of her past work to the fact that she is now older (62, to be specific) and looks back at that work from a different perspective than she had when she was younger.

This makes sense to me. As we age, there is often a natural evolution in how we see ourselves. We look back at our own history and ask ourselves, “How could I have been so naïve/courageous/stupid/bold? Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do that? What was I thinking?!” and myriad other questions.

In the case of art, one of the most valuable actions I have taken in recent years has been to look back through my archives every once in a while and try to understand my older work in a new way. With the passage of time, new life experiences help me to understand my younger creative self better, and in different ways that were invisible to me before. I’m glad that I have kept a lot of my early work so I can study it in this way.

I would encourage any artist to do so. If you don’t have the space to keep a lot of original artwork, then keep what is most important/significant to you and digitize as much of the rest of it as you can. Looking at digital reproductions of your artwork is not even close to being the same as looking at the originals, but it is the next best thing, and certainly better than nothing. In this way, you can haul out as much or as little of your past creative history as you want, whenever you want, and learn from yourself about yourself.

The older you get and the more you have to look back on, the more threads you will find that connect the various bodies of work that you have done and the better you will understand your creative voice as it has evolved.

Why is Art so Unimportant to So Many People?

This is a true story: A few weeks ago I overheard a college-aged son tell his mother that he got into one of the two classes he really wanted to take in the fall.

“Which one?”, she asked.

“The art class!” he replied, his voice full of excitement.

“I don’t care about THAT! I want to know if you got into the REAL class, you know, the math class!”, she said scornfully.

The gods of art- and I- wept.

Teacher Appreciation Day was a few weeks ago and numerous friends on Facebook posted about how art teachers are not considered to be “real” teachers. This attitude- that visual art, music and performance are not as important as other fields of study- is ridiculously pervasive in our culture.

I believe that this is, in part, because those of us in the arts have not done an effective job at educating those who don’t already love the arts as to their value. When we talk about their value, we tend to talk among ourselves about it, which is like preaching to the choir. Or we talk about it in terms that don’t speak to non-artists. We shake our heads in disbelief, but don’t attempt to step outside of ourselves and make a concerted effort at educating others in ways that will resonate and stick.

How can you make a convincing argument to an engineer that making art can facilitate and enhance the learning of math, for instance? My favorite example of how this can be done comes from the way that Waldorf education approaches integrating the arts, math and science. Waldorf schools initially introduce math and math concepts by teaching young children how to knit before they put pencil to paper. In so doing, the kids are learning how to add, subtract, multiply and divide (stitches and rows). As they knit, they are doing mathematical equations in their heads and creating with their hands, which prepares them for learning how to do it on paper. The items they knit are beautifully colored art objects, of which they are rightly proud.

On a different educational level, a few years ago I read about Daina Taimina, the Cornell University math professor who knits and crochets objects to illustrate hyperbolic space to her graduate students. Her artwork is exhibited all over the world now. How she thinks and what she does is a perfect example of how art and science belong to the same worlds. And we artists need to get better at explaining and illustrating that in concrete ways, or stories like the one I told at the beginning of this post will just be told endlessly until the end of days.

The conversation we are having in the US about importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education should really be a conversation about STEAM:

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(Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) education. But until we artists make an effective case about the importance of art in relation to other areas of learning, we will never have a seat at that table and will always be considered expendable.